Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Film #157: On The Bowery

On The Bowery was the product of a year's work by Lionel Rogosin who, convinced the area and its people were sure fodder for a documentary, committed the year 1955 to studying the hard-scrabble world of New York City's downtrodden Bowery district. In the process, he befriended one of the more knowing characters there, Gorman Hendricks (who died only weeks before the film debuted), and began exploring filming possibilities. He attempted, at first, to shoot with hidden cameras, but that didn't produce the intimate effect Rogosin was going for. Then he hired a commercial crew to film the Bowery goings-on. That didn't work, either. Finally, upon meeting writer Mark Sufrin and cinematographer Dick Bagley at the Village's famous White Horse Tavern (where author Dylan Thomas drank himself to death), Rogosin concocted a bare-bones script for the film that allowed for much leeway when it came to illustrating the filthy walks taken by the Bowery's down-and-out.

Rogosin decided to focus in on Hendricks, as a friendly rep of the old guard, and mainly on Ray Salyer, a tall and handsome newcomer to the district.  In the film, Salyer finds his body is still strong, but his will weakened. A former North Carolinian, he stumbles his way through this odd world, sleeping on streets, working a day here and there, one moment resolving to give up drinking, and then quickly giving in to that feeling of loneliness that drives many away from, and then back into, liquor's seductive grasp. This short film (only 65 minutes long) finds the time to dramatize Salyer's battle, to the extent that he was soon offered, after the film's release, a contract to work as a Hollywood actor.  But Ray Salyer chose to stay on the Bowery and reportedly died in 1963, less than a decade later. 

After long days and nights of shooting, Rogosin retired to the editing rooms with editor Helen Levitt and consultant Carl Lerner, and in 1956 emerged with one of the most striking looks at NYC street life ever put on film. The movie is an eyeful, through and through. At almost all times, we're aware of a slight story imposed on the piece, but there's also always a strict, concurrent sense what we are seeing is absolutely real. It's a weird feeling I've never gotten from any documentary. In this day of doc reenactments, we're watching out for signs of fakery. But somehow, I don't hold this sense against On The Bowery. The way the men talk and fight and scrap and hustle and sing, the silvery way they're captured in black-and-white, in always grimy surroundings...all of this makes me believe every second of it. Yes. This is how it was.

Now the Bowery, like many NYC neighborhoods, has been co-opted by higher prices. At Bowery and Broome, I used to go to a run-down hotel called the Pioneer. Great prices and lots of history. Now it's called the Sohotel, and the history is still there, but the costs have risen. This is not the Bowery I had grown up hearing about, and had once seen briefly in my mid-80s NYU days. Like 42nd Street, Harlem, the East Village, and Times Square, the place has been polished up, for better or worse. But Rogosin's film reminds us, with powerful force, of the misery that once occurred there, and has now been relegated to more secret locales.

On The Bowery, after being forgotten for many years, was reinvigorated by the Rogosin Heritage Inc. and Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. The restoration of this Oscar-nominated film--which is also part of the National Film Registry--is based on the original negatives preserved at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. It was carried out at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in March 2006

A milestone in American cinema. On The Bowery is very special to me. Rogosin's film is so true to my memories of that place and time. It's a rare achievement.--Martin Scorsese

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